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What are the Causes and Symptoms of Back Pain?

Updated on March 7, 2016
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Jo has been an ITU nurse at the London North West NHS Trust for 14 years. She obtained her RN at University College London Hospital.

Poor posture places stress on the nerve and disc of the spinal cord.
Poor posture places stress on the nerve and disc of the spinal cord. | Source
Lower Back Pain
Lower Back Pain | Source

Stretches for Lower back Pain


Back Pain Causes and Symptoms

Back pain is an "illness in search of a disease"

(Williams & Hadler)

Back pain is a common problem that affects most people at some point in their life. Almost 80% of people in the UK will suffer lower back pain. Fortunately; most episodes of back pain are mild and self limiting, around 90% are resolved within six weeks.

Back pain cost the UK in the region of £5 billion a year in disability benefit, the exact amount of money the NHS spends on back pain is unknown. Lower back in early pregnancy is not uncommon, about 1/4 of all pregnant women suffers from lower back pain at some point during their pregnancy.

31 million Americans experience lower back pain. 50% of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year. Back pain is said to be the single most common reason for missed work, and is thought to be the second most common reason for visits to the doctor, outnumbered only by upper-respiratory infections.

Americans spend over $50 billion each year on back pain, but specialists say most of the traditional treatment are at best ineffective and in some cases can actually worsen the symptoms. Most cases of back pain are mechanical, and are not as a result of a serious condition.

What Causes Back Pain?

The back is made up of a complicated structure of bones, ligaments, joints and muscles. 90% of back pain are caused by a simple injury such as strain or sprain to the muscle, tendon or ligament, although painful, it is not necessarily serious. The pain may be triggered by;

  • Bad posture during sitting or standing,

  • Bending awkwardly,

  • Lifting incorrectly,

  • Slouching in a chair

  • Over-stretching,

  • Repetitive movement,

  • Driving for long periods

  • Over use of muscles.

  • Obesity

  • Sport injuries

  • Psychological stress can cause or complicate back pain

Symptoms of Back Pain

Acute Back Pain

Pain often occurs suddenly after lifting something heavy, it can also develop slowly after years of poor posture. Some people experience back pain suddenly, for no apparent reason, they simply wake up one day with a sore back, that eases when lying flat but worsens when coughing, moving or sneezing.

Lower Back Pain

Back pain can be experienced anywhere along the spine, from the neck down to the hips, but is most commonly felt in the lower back. It can be acute, starting quickly or suddenly, it can range from a dull constant ache, to a sudden sharp pain making movement difficult, but may improve after a few days or weeks. Often, without the use of medical intervention. 50% of people will feel better within 2 weeks, and 90% between 6 to 8 weeks. However, if the condition does not improve after three days, medical attention may be required. Doctor should be seen, if regular episodes of back pain persists for more than six weeks.

Chronic Back Pain

Chronic back pain refers to pain that have persisted for over three months, like acute back pain, it is also usually caused by strain or sprain in the region of the back. In chronic back pain, the pain and distress lasts for much longer, and have a huge impact on daily life. Chronic back pain can range from mild to severe, depending on other contributing factors such as depression and previous experience of back pain.

Chronic back pain usually require treatment, this can be in the form of medication or physiotherapy, but generally, the body will heal its self. It is important to stay active, but in the case of severe and persistent pain, medical advice and intervention will be required for diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

There are several warning signs, known as red flag signs, an indication that back pain may be caused by a serious condition which requires medical attention, they includes:-

  • Fever with temperatures of 38 degrees or above

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Swelling of the back

  • Persistent back pain that does not ease after lying down

  • Pain in the chest or high up in the back

  • Pain down the legs and below the knees

  • Pain caused by recent trauma or injury to the back

  • Loss of bladder control

  • inability to pass urine

  • Loss of bowel control

  • Numbness around genitals, buttocks or back passage

  • Pain that is worse at night

People who are experiencing these symptoms should contact their GP or health provider as a matter of urgency. Pain in the upper back, neck, shoulders and legs although perceived as back pain may also be caused by other conditions as follow :-

  • Pain in lower back radiating down the buttocks and into one or both legs, may be a symptom of Sciatica. This usually occurs when the jelly-like substance within the disc that separates the vertebrae, (bone of the spine) bursts or pushes out of the disc, also known as herniated disc, irritate the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve can also be irritated by swollen muscles, joints or ligaments.

  • Pain or soreness in lower back, muscle weakness, tight muscles, lost of bowel or bladder control, pain during urination may be a result of a Slipped Disc
  • Back pain, buttock pain, swollen joints, tendons and extreme tiredness are common symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis
  • Pain and stiffness of the shoulder, which makes it difficult to dress, drive or sleep, could be sign of Frozen Shoulder
  • Neck pain and stiffness, headaches and lower back pain following an accident are common symptoms of Whiplash

Back pain can be as a direct result of disease in the organs, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots or bone loss.

Tips to Prevent Back Pain

  • Maintain a healthy diet and weight

  • Stay active, with guidance from doctors, physiotherapists chiropractors

  • Before exercising and other physical activities, always warm up or stretch

  • Maintain proper posture

  • Wear low heeled comfortable shoes

  • Sleep on mattress of medium firmness, help to minimize any curve in the spine

  • When lifting, use the knees, keep object close to the body and do not twist when lifting

  • Stop smoking, smoking reduces blood flow, depriving the spinal tissue of oxygen and nutrient.

I know only too well from personal experience just how debilitating and frightening, the experience of back pain can be. However; the body does heal, and it is important to stay active and positive. With the help of physiotherapy treatment such as stretches for lower back pain and advice, chiropractic care, yoga, exercise and diet, medical supervision and advice, Back pain can be managed and even prevented.

In the future this condition that is affecting so many people and costing so much, will be seen as a thing of the past.

Some of the methods of pain control I found helpful were, exercise stretches for lower back, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation or (TENS) and Magnectic therapy


Back pain Treatment on the NHS with Acupuncture

Physiotherapist in the NHS treat over 1.3 million people for lower back pain each year, but research shows that there is only weak evidence to support the effectiveness of this treatment. International guidelines vary but the consensus is that patients experiencing lower back pain should remain physically active and prescribed appropriate analgesics.

A research study from University of Sheffield, 2005, on the benefits of offering acupuncture care to patients with persistent non-specific chronic back pain, found that acupuncture care alongside conventional primary care gained more long-term relief from pain than patients who are only offered traditional care.

The study concluded that traditional acupuncture care delivered in a primary care setting was safe and acceptable to patients with non-specific low back pain. And that acupuncture care was significantly more effective in reducing bodily pain than usual care at 24 months follow-up, and that GP referral to a service providing traditional acupuncture care offers a cost-effective intervention for reducing low back pain over a two year period.

Based on the research findings, the recommendation to the commissioners of musculoskeletal services would be justified in considering making GP referral to short courses of traditional acupuncture care available to primary care patients with persistent non-specific low back pain.

Currently, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture as a treatment option only for lower back pain. The use of acupuncture within the NHS remains limited with most patients accessing the treatment through private means. The cost of acupuncture varies between practitioners with initial session costing around £35 to £60.

What is Acupuncture

Acupuncture is based on the ancient belief that "life force" or energy, called Qi, flows in channels through the body known as meridians. Proponents of this treatment believe that when Qi cannot flow freely through the body, illness results. Acupuncture is thought to be able to restore the flow of Qi and thereby restores the body back to health.


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    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Hi Quildon, sorry about the back, I know exactly how you feel. I'm glad you found this useful.

      Thanks for stopping by and for the insightful comment, don't forget to see your doctor if the pain continues.

      My best to you.

    • quildon profile image

      Angela Joseph 4 years ago from Florida

      Hi Jo, I don't usually suffer from back pain, but I recently returned from a visit to some friends and I don't know if it was the difference in the mattress, but I developed some pain in my upper back, which was what led me to your hub. Lots of good information here. Voted up and useful.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      DDE, thank you for taking a look, the cause of back pain can be as simple as a bad mattress, but it can also be due to something much more serious, so it is always worth while checking it out if it persists.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A well informed Hub on the back pain and the symptoms sometimes it can be confusing. Voted up!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Poor uncle phil, the proverbial pain in the rear, the butt of so much humour. :).

      Yep, back pain is no joke, our modern day activities doesn't seem to gel with how we were designed.

      Irish, wow! have been very busy, thank you for all those wonderful comments, you've been brilliant, and I will be round to yours, later to see what I've missed. Have a great Weekend and the very best to you my friend.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Jo - Those percentages are staggering. After reading how many delicate areas of the back there are, no wonder so many suffer from back pain.

      The constant shoveling of snow here in Upstate NY is my number on reason for an aching back. That and a pain in a spot located just below my lower back - thanks to my Uncle Phil.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Michelle, I hope your gran finds it helpful. Much appreciated.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      I wil pass this to my grandma, who suffers from back pains, being older. Thanks for sharing this.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Lesliebyars, thank you, much appreciated.

    • profile image

      lesliebyars 5 years ago

      Great hub!!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Hi johnkadu123, many thanks for the visit and insightful comment. Yes back pain can be extremely debilitating, however, the new medical advice is to keep moving and get back to work. When my back suddenly went, after years of ICU nursing and heavy lifting, I could not get out of bed, let alone stay active. physiotherapy and TENS got me moving again after six weeks of hell.

    • Johnkadu123 profile image

      Johnkadu123 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Thanks for the hub. Back pain is an affliction that I would not wish on my worst enemy. The pain is excruciating and there seems to be very little that can be done about it. I would advise that people take care. Do not push the body too hard especially once you start hitting your middle age.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Hi Kashmir, thank you very much for taking a look, always appreciated.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great hub and all great and useful information within this well written hub .

      Vote up and more !!!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Hi pdhast7, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, thank you so much for stopping by, much appreciated.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      peachpurple I'm glad you found this helpful, I used to have the same problems with pain from poor sleeping position, I now use a Tempur memory foam mattress, it worked brilliantly.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      WVBards, you seem to have a good understanding of your condition and you're doing all the right things.

      As we age, we learn to become intimate with aches and pain but yoga is always a good place to start prevention. You made a very good point about the fibromyalgia, which is why we should seek medical help for a proper diagnosis. Thank you for the insightful comment, much appreciated.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Hub with lots of useful information. Thanks.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i usually have back pain if i sleep late or incorrect sleeping pattern. However, my hubby had back pain, spinal cord for years. Great to know more about this issue. Great hub

    • WVBards profile image

      Fibromyalgia Daughter 5 years ago from Seattle

      I'm going to get back pain as I age due to too little cartilage surrounding a disk. So I do yoga to stretch it out, and so far it has alleviated symptoms.

      Sometimes, though, the pain can be amplified if you have other diseases, like Fibromyalgia. My mom had both a bad back and Fibro, and she ended up believing it was her bad back causing her all the pain, delaying her diagnosis.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 5 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Billy, I remember it only too well, felt like the body has broken and will never be whole again, but you are right; the body is wonderful at healing the damages we cause, with a little help. I'm glad to hear that you are all healed and doing well. My best as always.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, the only time I have ever been in a hospital was for a back operation in 1989....bulging disk.....since then I have not had a moment's discomfort from my back. I am lucky, because a sore back is almost crippling. Good information!


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